Criminal Defense Blog

Were the jury instructions in George Zimmerman trial correct?

Should it really matter that at the time George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, Trayvon might have managed to have gotten the upper hand and was slamming George’s head into the pavement? If the reason Trayvon struck George was that George accosted him, wouldn’t that still make Trayvon the person who acted in self defense and George the aggressor?

There is a rule of law known as the initial aggressor exception to the right to self defense. It states that a defendant generally may not claim that he acted in self defense if he was the person who started the fight in the first place. This is true even if at the time of the killing – as may have been the case with George Zimmerman – he genuinely feared for his life.

Anonymous juror B37 said in her interview on CNN that she had no doubt that Zimmerman feared for his life. But she also complained that the jury instructions were difficult to understand, and that jurors were baffled about how far back in time their analysis of self defense should go. Should the fact that Geroge Zimmerman “started the ball rolling” (her words) and followed Zimmerman factor into the analysis? She thought not.

Unfortunately, Judge Debra Nelson didn’t instruct the jury about the initial aggressor rule and self defense. Florida law, in turns out, has such nuance. Florida law provides that, with a few notable exceptions, self defense is “not available” as a justification for murder for a person “who initially provokes the use of force.” More specifically, the law says, an individual who “initially provokes the use of force against himself” does not have the right to engage in self defense unless he either “has exhausted every reasonable means to escape” or “withdraws from physical contact with the assailant.”

Thanks to steamrolling by defense lawyers, Judge Nelson didn’t instruct the jury properly. Little did they know that if Zimmerman provoked the conflict, as by intimidating Martin and tracking him down, he might not have had the right to engage in self defense.

The opinions and information in this blog are not intended to be legal advice, and are not a substitute for obtaining advice from a qualified attorney about your particular matter.